My Aleteia piece on the suffering faithful…

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is spotlighted today:

The Church is full of the obedient wounded. The flock who never strayed have troubles of their own, and some of these troubles come directly from original sin, the effects of which no doctrinal development, pastoral compassion, or rigorously trained professional can completely undo.

Poor family, they need to hear that their sorrows are known to God and to the Church. That the cross still hangs there above the altar because it must be faced, sooner or later, even when we’re inside the walls of the Church. Sacramental marriage is not a safe, cozy nest where no predators can find us. Every marriage includes some element of the cross.

Read the rest at Aleteia.

By the way, have you seen Aleteia lately? It’s gorgeous. They’ve revamped their whole site, and Elizabeth Scalia is bringing on lots of great writers.

Also, I’ve received tons of mail in response to the open letter to the Synod Fathers from Monica More that I posted last week (Married to an Angry Man). I am grateful that so many people took the time to offer responses and help. Please be patient while I work on responding.

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On complaining honestly about NFP (and other crosses)

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Want to complain about NFP? Far be it from me to stop you! You could even go ahead and write a whole book about how hard NFP can be, and see where that gets you. (Psst, it’s still on sale! $5 paperback, $2.99 eb0ok)
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Couples who are struggling are very grateful to hear that they’re not the only ones who hate NFP. There’s nothing worse than feeling like, not only are you having a miserable time, but you’re the only ones who aren’t lovin’ every minute of it.
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Happily, the conversation about NFP has been slowly, steadily becoming more realistic, and fewer NFP promoters are resorting to sunshine-’n’-buttercups tactics as they sell NFP. Instead, we’re seeing more frank and honest discussions of the what NFP can (but won’t necessarily automatically) do for your marriage. (See a great reading list at the end of this post.) Honesty may  not be the most immediately attractive approach, but in the long run, it’s more helpful.
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However! There’s such a thing as too much honesty — or, rather, there’s such a thing as misleading honesty, honesty that is one-sided, incomplete, or even dishonest.
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Here are a few of the things I try to achieve when I talk about NFP, along with just being honest:
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1. NO CROSS-COMPARING.
I try not to make it seem like only couples who struggle are couples who are doing it right. I used to do this, and I’m sorry about that!  It’s kind of like the “real women have curves” sloganeering. Well, I’m a real woman, and I have curves; but I have skinny friends, and they are real women, too. Let’s not overcompensate and end up insulting people who simply have a different cross from our own.
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If those of us who really struggle with NFP are going to plead for or demand more sympathy and understanding from people who find it a light cross at worst, we should extend the same courtesy to people who are bearing up well under the cross of NFP. We shouldn’t imply, even jokingly, that couples who like NFP are probably just some kind of low-drive tea bags in the bedroom. Comparing crosses, and taking jabs at people with other crosses than your own, is a shitty game. Talk about missing the point.
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2. NO FALSE HOPES
I try to make it clear that, while Catholics can certainly improve the way they deliverthe Church’s teaching about sexuality, the Church is not going to change her teaching about sexualityIt’s one thing to say, “I feel comforted when someone in the Church recognizes that this is a hard teaching.” It’s quite another to say, “I feel comforted to think that the Church is getting closer to fixing this unreasonable demand she makes on us.” Certain things are simply not in flux.
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If we’d like an acknowledgement from the bishops or from the local marriage prep teacher that NFP is sometimes nothing but a cross for couples, then I agree with you. NFP is “challenging” in the same way that unmedicated childbirth gives you “discomfort.”  But let’s not encourage people to hope for some kind of change in the Church’s teaching. I know that as long as I was hoping for that, I was unable to look suffering in the face. Which is a bad thing.
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Which brings me to my third point:
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3. NO INSISTING ON HUMAN STANDARDS 
When we are avoiding or postponing pregnancy, we don’t use NFP primarily because of its magical marriage-building properties! We use NFP because it allows us to have sex sometimes instead of never. We’d be smart to pursue any benefits that we can, but they are not why we reject contraception. We reject contraception primarily because it is immoral, and we can thank the Holy Spirit if rejecting contraception also brings us various goods, like better physical health or better relationships with our spouses and with God.
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NFP is not necessarily going to “hurt so good,” with measurable payoffs for the ordeal. It might just plain hurt, without any discernible benefits or rewards, because of original sin. When we preach solely about the rewards of NFP — even hard-to-achieve spiritual rewards — and never talk about our duty to reject sin, we imply that suffering is only worthwhile when it has some immediate and obvious purpose, goal, or benefit, such as “marriage building,” or making couples happy or fulfilled, or giving life, or making our spiritual life more fulfilling. Is this what suffering is really like, though?
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Not that I’ve noticed. When Jesus was on the cross, I’m pretty sure that everyone around Him experienced His sacrifice as nothing but a cruel, senseless, loss. He had only been in public ministry for a few years, and now it was ending already, and they were all losing a teacher, a savior, a friend, a son — not to mention that they were seeing Him in pain and disgrace, and were all in danger of being arrested just for knowing Him. Plenty of people saw what was happening and ran away and lost their faith. There was nothing happy or fulfilling life-giving in sight with that sacrifice. I am quite sure it seemed senseless and intolerable — probably, if we listen to His words, even to Christ Himself.
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Oh my gosh, what a downer, right? But really, it’s a trap to use human standards (“Is this making me happy? Is this making life better? Does everyone around me agree that this makes sense? Does it seem like I’m making progress?”) to make judgments about what kind of suffering is tolerable. When we do this, then really serious suffering, the kind that doesn’t make sense, will seem like a sign that something is wrong — that something has to change, that we deserve a pass of some kind (see point #2).
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If we look at a crucifix, suffering may or may not make sense, but at least we can’t claim that God couldn’t possibly expect us to choose that path just because of religion.  Look to Him. Look at Him. See Him hanging there, abandoned. Sometimes there is no answer — not for you, not right now. That’s not a good reason to stop.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in redemptive suffering. It’s just that I no longer expect it to feel redemptive.
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For further reading, do yourself a favor and check out the invaluable Jen Fitz’s series:
What Is the Point of Pointless Suffering?
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I want to be Jen Fitz when I grow up!
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And also don’t miss Greg Popcak’s helpful advice specifically about NFP in his series from this year:
and a good reminder to those of us with big families that hyperfertility is a cross, but it’s not the only cross, so watch your words.

Only a rightly-ordered heart feels grief

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e know some couples who don’t fight very much, but they don’t seem to really enjoy each other, either. They more or less leave each other alone, with a sort of low-level, courteous disdain for each other’s enthusiasms and flaws alike. They never experience the agony of rupture because they’ve carefully cordoned themselves off from any passionate unity. They are indifferent, because it’s easier. And this indifference is a tragic waste of marriage.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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Other people’s blessings

I’ve had to remind myself, over and over again, that couples who really do love NFP aren’t just lying. The “Oh, how I love the monthly cycle of courtship and honeymoon!” crowd haven’t drunk any Kool-Aid. They’re not necessarily undersexed, brainwashed saps who have never encountered true suffering.

 

They’re just different from me, and if I expect them to respect my struggles, then I need to learn to respect their joy.

Read the rest at the Register. 

Love, Blame and Hope in the Movie MUD

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This movie wasn’t about what is wrong with women, or what is wrong with men. It was more about how difficult love is, and how little it helps when we lie to ourselves. It was a sorrowful movie, but not a depressing one; and it left lots of room for at least some of the characters to learn from their suffering and to forgive the people who failed them. Yes, the snakes that have been waiting will get you in the end. No, you will not die. But don’t let yourself get bitten again — unless it’s for someone you love. And around it goes, and the sun keeps shining off the open waters ahead.

Read the rest at the Register.

What About Behavioral and Spiritual Arguments Against Vaccines?

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As we can see from Tuesday’s post and the response to it, it’s not necessarily clear what we mean when we say “science” or “medicine.” So let’s put science and medicine aside entirely for a moment, and let’s focus on two arguments against vaccines that I keep hearing — arguments which don’t appeal to science at all, but which are spiritual and behavioral.

Read the rest at the Register.   Note: any snark, condescension, lack of charity, arrogance, self-pity, logical fallacies or otherwise insufferable behavior in this post is unintentional. If you think I’ve missed the mark, please pray for me and respond with as much kindness as you can, because I really am trying here.

Don’t be a sex sponge.

Most women bloggers have a loyal reader and commenter who can be described as “Issues Guy.”  Like a dog has fleas, he’s got issues with women — and man, do they bite.

My Issues Guy put himself right in the middle of this post on idolatry, in a tangential combox conversation which turned out to be far more interesting than the post itself  (even though the post itself had “foreskin” in the title!). Issues Guy described his perfect potential wife and marriage thus:

The Plan
Find a woman who:
•wants to/is willing to have sex all the time
•wants to be 100% submissive in a way that feels natural
•wants to/is willing to have all the kids I can give her

It’s a simple three-point plan. Not sure how hard it would be to execute.

In return I will:
•treat her like a middle school girl (which women seem to like no matter what they may say) alternating with treating her like an adult which they admittedly also seem to like.
•work till I black out if necessary
•let her read to me

It’s a perfect plan.

Ouchie, the issues!  A married man tried to correct him, saying,

 Your description of marriage as a contract with its focus on sexual gratification of the man exposes a deep seated fear of intimacy and completely misses the root of our Church Tradition … So you will be physically faithful to one woman. Big shit. So was Hitler.

[…]

As a sacramental vocation, I have experienced that marriage helps me to be a better person ONLY when I am actively engaged in all aspects of our lives. When I slack off and choose to only live my vows by “working until I blackout” it is a sham. And when in such denial, my heart has been clouded from receiving love from any source.

Issues Man responded:

Sex as the foundation of marriage isn’t an error, it’s natural law. That’s why sex is considered the consummation of the sacrament and why people of the same sex can’t marry each other.

Really this whole controversy boils down to a wife’s duty to have sex with her husband.

A few people tried to respond to him, but here is the reply that really lit up my female brain:

The expectation that someone should be available “all the time” speaks to little to no understanding of how important sex really is.

Ding ding! Issues Guy thought that, because he wants and needs sex all the time, he alone understands how important it is; but in fact, it shows how unimportant he imagines sex to be. It shows how little he understands it.

Imagine if someone said, “Most people settle for three-minute pop songs, but I am different. I appreciate the beauty of Beethoven. Therefore, I will put the fourth movement of his ninth symphony on repeat, and will listen to it over and over again at top volume for the rest of my life.”

That would be weird, right? Someone who wants that is someone who maybe started out actually loving music, but his natural desire for its beauty and depth has turned into . . . something else. Something that ruins Beethoven.

Or imagine a child who is presented with a chocolate cake for his first birthday. He’s so excited that, while he does manage to get some of it into his mouth, he also smears it in his hair, squishes it between his fingers, slathers it all over his skin and clothes.

PIC baby massacring cake

 

 

You wouldn’t look at a kid like this and say, “Wow, here is a true gourmet! Unlike the rest of us, who eat three meals a day, he truly understands how important food is.” No, you’d say, “Ha, he doesn’t know any better. Someone get a towel.”

Why is this? Well, when something is profound, we don’t enjoy it best when we wallow in it. We’re not sponges, just an undifferentiated blob of strung-together holes designed for soaking. Someone who soaks, someone who wallows — this is not someone who understands. This is someone who has traded understanding for consumption.

It is the same with sex.  The “want/need/have-to-have/gimme-more-now-now-now” model of sexuality is a sad and poor and foolish one. Yes, we have needs — but we are more than the sum of our needs. We are not made to wallow. When we understand that something is important, we use some discernment, some restraint, or at very least some careful timing.

Now, these analogies — music, food — are useful to explain what is grotesque about the “want/need/must-not-be-denied” attitude . . . but only up to a point. It is true that there is such a thing as too much Beethoven or too much chocolate cake, and that people who yearn for nonstop saturation don’t truly love what they say they love.

But that’s not the only problem, when we’re talking about sex. It’s not just that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. It’s that sex doesn’t mean anything at all when it’s not an expression of a relationship.

Food and music have some element of this need for relationships. It’s nicer when we enoy music together, and it’s a happier day when we can share a feast with someone else. But if we do enjoy these things alone — if we are carried out of ourselves, out and away from the crowded concert hall on a solitary musical wave,  or if we close our eyes in bliss as we taste a spoonful of something exquisite, something we do not have to share?

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This is fine. This is great. This is normal, and nice, and good.

But sex is different. Sex is only meaningful because it is part of a relationship. This is true of sex every single time, no matter who you are, what your circumstances, what your  needs, what your wants, what your desires, what your issues. Sex is about two people, always. “You give it to me” is not a relationship. If you’re thinking of sex as something that you do and the other person must let you do, then you are not really thinking about sex. You’re thinking about holes that need filling. You are being a hole that needs filling. You are being a sponge.

PIC flabby sponge

 

The comments I quoted above came about as a tangent to the central conversation — but come to think about it, they’re right on target. I said that idolatry is when we

replace God with something smaller and easier to manage — and devote your life to serving that, instead.

And there we are. Sex is not small, and it is not easy to manage. It is a vast ocean. One way that we can make it manageable is, paradoxically, to wallow in it — to become an undifferentiated, undifferentiating mass of saturated holes. It is easier this way. Sponges don’t care about tides, or storms, or seasons, or night or day. Some of them don’t even need another sponge to reproduce. They just witlessly bud, and add to themselves more holes to be filled.

Do not, o thou man, be a sponge. Be better. Struggle, suffer, give yourself over to a world of thirst and desire, conflict and deep joy.

Struggle, learn, suffer, love, and be better than a sponge.

 

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You know that Extraordinary Bishops’ Synod on the Family coming up in October? The Patheos Catholic Channel will be posting a rolling symposium covering all sorts of topics relevant to the Synod. I’m tagging this post #synod and #symposium because it’s about sex, and sex is relevant to everything! Right? Yes?
Anyway, many of my fellow bloggers, many of whom are capable of thinking of things other than sex, are posting clear, insightful, entertaining posts. The Catholic Patheos Synod Symposium Landing Page is already full of great posts, and is being updated regularly. You may not be familiar with some of the fine writers who contribute to the Patheos Catholic Channel. Browse around! We’re an amazingly varied bunch.

Great article about Catholics and depression

Michael J. Lichens contributes a guest post to The Catholic Gentleman: Black Dog Days: How to Deal With Depression.  It’s sympathetic but not squishy, practical, realistic, and humble. Great read for anyone who is suffering through depression.  An excerpt:

Prayer is very hard when you are depressed. I, for one, have nagging doubts when I go through my black dog days. God seems silent and I wonder where He is and what He’s doing. All the same, I do pray, and peace eventually comes. In one case, it took me two years of praying, but peace did come. Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul lasted several years, but she endured. You can find strength in the same faith.

If you are praying and meditating and the words do not come, then sit in silence. Find an icon or an adoration chapel and utter the words, “You are God, I am not. Please help.” If nothing else, your mind will slow down and will shift its focus to God, who sustains all life and is the source of our strength.

I know this is hard, and sometimes you will want to give up. If you can do nothing else, try to take comfort in knowing that Christ didn’t die and rise again just to leave you alone. Find the saints who did suffer from grief and depression and ask them for help. They, more than any other, are eager to come to your aid.

Read the rest here.

At the Register: True Suffering Isn’t Photogenic

Don’t add pain to pain by expecting it to “hurt so good.”

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The Dreadmill

That’s what my kids call my treadmill.  Today, the dreadmill and I discovered an unexpected advantage to living in an old house:  you can quickly, easily,unintentionally intensify your workout significantly by moving from the mostly-level living room into what turns out to be the ridiculously uphill dining room.

PIC calves burning

 

Yarr. I’ve had this treadmill for about a month now, and by gum, I am using it.  I don’t own a scale, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t lost weight; but that wasn’t my immediate goal (even though I am most certainly too fat, and not just in a “Oh, my wife says she’s fat” way but seriously, I’m a fatty). My immediate goal was to get off the damn couch, and get to a point where I don’t look terrible, feel terrible, feel like I look terrible, and look like I feel terrible all the time.

And I am there!  I do a half hour minimum, five days a week, 3.5 miles per hour minimum, and I “punch the invisible man,” as my kids call it, for at least part of the time.  (I know food is a big component of health and weight loss, and I’m making changes there, too.)

So, I have more energy, I think I’m less moody and more optimistic, I’m sleeping better, and I have bruises all over the back of my hands because I keep whacking them on the treadmill handrails.  Overall, net win.  There are plenty of other workouts I could be doing, but this is the one I am doing, and I don’t see why I would stop doing it.  As with so many other things in life, it’s working because I’m being consistent.  I’m hoping to be in good enough shape by spring to be exercising to the point of weight loss

Best workout album so far:  Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. It’s not just the beat, which is pretty brisk on most songs; it’s the atmosphere of “let’s revel delightfully in this sweaty misery” which I find motivating.  What an amazing album. It should be written up as a case study of the intelligent, self-aware, artistic patient self-medicating for severe depression.  Boy, that doesn’t make it sound like much fun. But it is fun!

Looking for a good song to excerpt, I came across this live version of “Transformer.”  Holy wow, what a voice:

The Pogues are also pretty good for a strong beat and a sensation that we’re all just suffering bastards here, so why not get a little sweatier?

Also, I have tried all the ear buds in the house, which includes every brand from Dollar Tree to Mac, and they all fall out of my ears. Finally broke down and bought my own, which are JVC Gumy Inner Ear headphones, and they don’t fall out. The sound is fine.  I can barely hear what is going on around me, which is a little alarming, but if that’s what you want, these do a good job, and are cheap.

Mrs. Stupid is kind of enjoying her stupid exercise. Didn’t see that coming, did you?